3 Writing Tips You Can Learn from Avengers: Age of Ultron

This guest post is by Shanan Haislip. Shanan is a full-time business writer and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about being a writer around a full-time life (without going insane). She lives in Connecticut, runs for fun, and is a huge fan of pie. You can follow her on Twitter (@Write_Tomorrow).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had me hooked since Captain America: The First Avenger (well, since this scene, anyway—I’m shallow).

3 Writing Tips from Avengers: Age of Ultron

What Writers Can Learn from Avengers: Age of Ultron

When I heard that author, director and all-around nerd royalty Joss Whedon was reprising his dual roles in the screenwriter’s and director’s chairs for Avengers: Age of Ultron, I came to the theater armed with a notepad, figuring I could take home some stellar writing tips from the guy who poured so much of himself into this film that he nearly died of exhaustion.

I was right. Writing tips and mild spoilers ahead.

1. Fix Tension Between Plot and Character Motivation

In most action movies, you can expect the main characters to be cogs in the machine of the plot, leaping from exposition to action, to action, to confrontation, and, finally, to denouement.

In this world, the setting has wound like a vine around the characters. Stark Tower, the Avengers’ new HQ, might be made of steel, but it’s the characters in Joss Whedon’s newest epic that hold it up.

In a good story, when a character’s decisions, dialogue and feelings sync with what the audience knows a character wants, you get character-driven action that marches in perfect lockstep with the plot, so each action set piece feels vital, warranted and rewarding.

Despite the chase scenes and explosions, character-driven action is all about what the viewer can’t see: Motivation.

How they did it: In Ultron, Marvel has a one-woman motivation machine in Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, who sets about revealing the worst fears and darkest memories of each of our heroes. What they see in these visions drives them for the rest of the movie: Tony Stark bringing the Ultron program to life, Thor leaving the group in search of answers, and Bruce Banner… well, take a guess.

How you can do it: Plot arcs and outlines are wonderful and necessary things, but to resolve the tension created by characters that aren’t tailor-made for the decisions they make, consider taking a break from the main work of writing your story to do some character exposition. One method, which Joss Whedon talks about in this recent podcast, is to give your character a one-page monologue in which he explains what he wants most, and why.

If your character’s decisions don’t jive with the thing he’s just told you he wants more than anything, then one thing—usually the plot—has to give.

2. Give Your Villain Some Common Sense

Sure, every villain spells out his evil plan at some point. Ultron, however, does the smart thing and talks about it in the presence of close confidantes, leaving the heroes to figure out what he’s up to without that “Why don’t you just shoot them already?!” tension that is, at best, illogical. It’s a small point, to be sure, but it humanizes and logic-izes (is that a word?) both the main villain and the movie arc as a whole.

How they did it: Ultron reveals his plans to his friends, not the people trying to foil his plans.

How you can do it: Watch for logical flaws in your villains, especially the ones that feel convenient, like you need them to keep the plot going. Then cut them out, using common sense as your guide. It might change your story arc a bit, but your readers will be rewarded with much more solid characters.

3. Mix Up the Majestic Monologues… a Little.

Marvel deserves flak for the one-note villains in most of its movies. (Do you even remember what Malekith wanted to do with the Aether? I don’t.) But Age of Ultron famous for “Whedonisms,” one-liners that pull double-duty as character exposition and as much-needed lightness in a film that staggers under its own weight from time to time.

How they did it: In the middle of one such majestic monologue, Ultron interrupts himself while he’s declaiming away on “Everybody creates the thing they dread,” as he says “Humans. They create…they create…smaller humans.” Pause. “Children. Lost the words there.”

How you can do it: Sparingly. This kind of declaimus interruptus can be a good strategy during your second draft stage when you feel your story’s atmosphere veering off into unbearable lightness or soul-sucking profundity.

But remember, these are “Whedonisms” for a reason. Using them too much (guilty!) can feel a little bit like verbal slapstick—like one scene when a character tells Hawkeye, “You know I totally support your avenging.” Cringe.

How about you? What did you think of Avengers: Age of Ultron? What did you learn about writing from the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Get in touch with a character’s motivation Joss Whedon’s way: Give the character a monologue that explains the thing that he/she/it wants most, and why. Have fun with it!

Practice this for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your character descriptions in the comments.

And if you practice, make sure to comment on someone else’s practice with your feedback.

About Shanan Haislip

Shanan is a full-time business writer and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about being a writer around a full-time life (without going insane). She lives and works in Connecticut, runs for fun and is a huge fan of pie.

  • I actually haven’t watched the movie. Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of the first movie, which is odd because I love superheroes and most superhero movies. However, I loved your tip on giving the villain common sense. Sometimes villains cause their own downfall by their willingness to share their plan with the protagonist, so it’s good to see an example where this isn’t the case. Villains should be smart, and this should make them more formidable.

    • I definitely think a collective boost in the IQ of literary villains in general is sorely needed! In the case of Age of Ultron, the robot actually (without giving too much away; this was in one of the clips Marvel published on Youtube) mocks the trope by beginning to explain his “evil plan” to a group of Avengers and then cutting himself short by just launching into battle against them. It’s a great moment of self-awareness.

      If you didn’t like The Avengers, I think there might actually be a decent chance you’ll like this movie. It’s got a very different tone and look. Unless the reason you didn’t enjoy Avengers was because there were too many superheroes for your taste (then you DEFINITELY won’t care for Age of Ultron).

      Thanks for reading!

      • Thanks for the reply. Perhaps I should give the Avengers another chance. I don’t think you can have too many superheroes 🙂 Could be that I’m more of a Batman and Superman fan than a Marvel fan. I’ll check it out though. Thanks!

      • Sean O’Leary

        Fair enough. But I still think these “blockbusters” are a race to the bottom, without much to offer for writers.

  • Alison Schultz

    Hey all! I’ve been away for a while but I’m hoping to start doing daily practices again. Thanks for the great post, Shanan!

    Written from the perspective of my protagonist, 16-year-old Cassia.

    My sister stands out. I want to stand out. I mean, she pushes it a lot. She’s your party girl type– always somewhere getting drunk or getting with a new guy. Yeah, she doesn’t have a great rep, but people notice her! They know her name and probably more than that, more than they should even, but that’s her. Me? I keep my head down, keep my resentment inside. For the most part, I do everything I should. For years I’ve promised myself it would all be worth it someday. But what about now? God, I’m so boring and dull and serious and I know everyone knows and maybe that’s why I’ve been kissed only once, at a rec dance, which hardly counts. I’ve spent the past six years, since the beginning of middle school, scoffing at the girls who sneak out and party, because I figured they’d never go anywhere in life. Guess what? Lots of times, I’ve been wrong. And also? They’re still having more fun than me. It’s not worth it to just stress and frown all the time, let my life revolve around every assignment. And I’m not giving up on school, I promise, I’ll still be focused and study and all that. But maybe… Maybe I could try something new. Meet someone new. Shit, this would hardly be a problem if I didn’t just bury myself in my work. How hard would it have been for little Cassia to have reached out, maybe even just once, and been that slightest bit more social. Definitely would have made this a hell of a lot easier. But that kid didn’t want to talk to most people, so I’ll have to pay the price now. Maybe it’ll be futile. I’m not a partier by nature, I think I’d know if I was. What I’m running off of is that maybe I can change. Other people aren’t the problem; it’s me. If I put myself out there, perhaps I’ll eventually become someone I can feel comfortable as.

    • Thomas Furmato

      Very realistic in what I could imagine Cassia saying.

  • Sean O’Leary

    Nice try Shanan. I had to leave well before the end, it was that appalling. I’m a fan and a writer of sci-fi and fantasy but this was just Hollywood bullsxxx. You may well ask why in fact I went in the first place? I actually thought it was a remake of that delightful, quirky sixties Avengers with the dashing John Steed and Emma Peel!

    Cheers Sean O’Leary

  • Izzy

    Great post! Thank you for all of your wounderful articles. I’m so glad I found this site! I haven’t seen AoU yet, but am looking forward to it! I haven’t been writing for a while, but am going to start writing my book again today. Just taking a step back and reworking it…

    This is written from the perspective of one of my three protagonists in my series, Mist in her middle 20’s (I think). Please let me know what you think and if you think I could improve it in any way. Thanks~

    Whispers. Always the whispers in my mind. Will I ever be able to get rid of them? My friends and fellow Ring Warriors think I’m special and look to me as there leader. I just… I never wanted this. All my life, living with my mother, spending time with Tristan and Moonstrider in the stables and Forrest. That is what I love and miss the most. I hate the killing, the war, The Sword of Atlantis, I feel as if it all killing me slowly, soundlessly. I hide it from them, but I feel that Tristan knows. every day the Sword’s power over me grows. It talks to me, whispering, reminding me about things that I hate, that I love. tearing me apart. If the other members of The Ring of Warriors feel the way I do, they hide it better than me. One day I will just fracture, then the power will come. It will come though me, consume me, destroy me. I can’t let that happen. The five kingdoms are depending on me. I will survive, I must. I was chosen to lead. I will lead. But then it whispers, “there could be another way… one without war or pain, don’t you think, Mist?”. Then I fall. I fell once, not long ago. I killed my best friend. Stabbed right though the Stomach . They told me it was the only thing I could have done to save the world from going into the same chaos I had just defeated . Ha. If only they knew.

    Now, I must find the Akkadain empire. Then everything will be right. The Sword destroyed, once and for all…

    P.S. “Atlantis” is a Kingdom in which Mist lives in. Nothing to do with Plato’s Atlantis.

  • Izzy

    Great post! I haven’t seen AoU yet, but am looking forward to it! I haven’t been writing for a while, but am going to start writing my book again today. Just taking a step back and reworking it…

    This is written from the perspective of one of my three protagonists in my series, Mist in her middle 20’s (I think). Please let me know what you think and if you think I could improve it in any way. Thanks~

    Whispers. Always the whispers in my mind. Will I ever be able to get rid of them? My friends and fellow Ring Warriors think I’m special and look to me as there leader. I just… I never wanted this. All my life, living with my mother, spending time with Tristan and Moonstrider in the stables and Forrest. That is what I love and miss the most. I hate the killing, the war, The Sword of Atlantis, I feel as if it all killing me slowly soundlessly. I hide it from them, but I feel that Tristan knows. every day the Sword’s power over me grows. It talks to me, whispering, reminding me about things that I hate, that I love. tearing me apart. If the other members of The Ring of Warriors feel the way I do, they hid it better than me. One day I will just fracture, then the power will come. It will come though me, consume me, destroy me. I can’t let that happen. the five kingdoms are depending on me. I will survive, I must. I was chosen to lead. I will lead. But then it whispers, “there could be another way… one without war or pain, don’t you think mist?”. Then I fall. I fell once, not long ago. I killed my best friend. Stabbed right though the stumich. They told me it was the only thing I could have done to save the world from going into the same chaos I had just defeated . Ha. If only they knew.

    Now, I must find the Akkadain empire. Then everything will be right. The Sword destroyed, once and for all~

    P.S. “Atlantis” is a Kingdom in which Mist lives in. Nothing to do with Plato’s Atlantis.

  • Everything you just said, Shanan. Everything you just said made me nod my head so hard that I almost got a concussion.

    The reviews that went “meh” and “that wasn’t good” frankly baffle me because EVERYTHING YOU JUST SAID. This film had a crapton of characters and expositions that need to be dealt with, and they were dealt with cohesively without sacrificing character nuance.

    Sure, it’s not perfect. But I dare all the critics to make a coherent movie out of all the elements that needed to be there (as mandated by MARVEL). I bet they can’t.

    In conclusion: I love you, and thank you.

  • Cathryn Cade

    Joss Whedon? I’m there! Well, and Thor …

    Thanks for using the movie as an example, Shanan. It will make it more fun to watch.

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  • Dominica Moore’s Deepest Thoughts and Desires
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    I was always a small town girl with big dreams. I’ve always planned big from the time I was a small child of 2 ½ years old, when I told my grandmother, aunt and uncle I wanted to be a singer when I grew up, and perform just like Sonny and Cher. I wanted to be as good as Cher. I would often take my jump rope, using it as a microphone while standing in front of the television set, singing along to the songs when watching the Sonny and Cher Show.

    My mother told me, “Dominica, you need to sit down, so the rest of us can watch the show.”

    I wasn’t happy to comply. I moved slightly to the right, while I continued dancing and singing.

    When I was 7 ½ years old, I wanted to become a ballerina, always doing the moves I saw dancers on television do. I had aspirations to perform in a ballet with a renown dance company. However, my dreams for that ended when my father deliberately knocked a tall lamp on my feet, breaking some bones in my toes, just so he could discourage me from becoming a ballerina.

    I still love dancing, although I’m not that great. I could have been the best at dancing, had my parents enrolled me in ballet class when I was younger. However, they saw it as a waste of money and time.

    So, I moved onto my interest in science. My parents weren’t to happy to have me become a poultry scientist.

    There plummeted that dream.

    Finally, I moved onto becoming a writer. Back in middle school, I imagined myself living in a huge mansion, with a study where I would have my own collection of books lining the walls of which I had written myself. I dream about become a national bestselling author and an international bestselling author, who won all sorts of awards and accolades for literature.

    I dream of winning an Academy Award for the best written screenplay. However, my life didn’t turn out the way I planned. I am a published author who sold modest number of copies of my novels. I’m a caregiver for my elderly grandmother.

    I write during the day and certain times of the night.

    I’d still like to become a bestselling author, hoping to best in the to 20 or top 30 of the bestselling authors. Maybe one day I will win a Pulitzer Prize in literature. But, I don’t know what the future holds for me. I can only hope and speculate. The future isn’t written in stone. I’ve learned the hard way, life is what one makes of it. I can only live my life for me, the best way I know how.

    I’m still struggling a bit to come to terms with my failures in life. I regret in some ways not pursuing a degree in psychology. I could have gotten a B. A. in psychology. However, I
    would have had to stop my education thereafter, because I didn’t have the money needed to continue my educational pursuits of becoming a psychiatrist. So, I use my background knowledge in psychology when writing fiction. This is especially useful when getting inside the heads of the characters I write about.

    Whenever I’m feeling down or disappointed in myself, my uncle tells me, “Dominica,
    you fall down 100 times, you get up 100 times.” I can understand his reasoning behind it; however, it’s something not always easy to do, because the disappointment can be too hard to bear.

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015

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  • Tenley

    Oh God it sucked so bad, just do the opposite.